There are some days that stand out above all other days. That is true personally as well as historically. Of all the days that stand out in the minds of the Jewish people, this great day of the Passover and their exodus from Egypt must be above and beyond them all.
The Israelites’ deliverance was effected by a series of plagues that God brought upon the Egyptians, and particularly upon Pharaoh because he was unwilling to let the people go. He wouldn’t listen to the word of the Lord through Moses, and so these plagues began. They increased in intensity, until near the end even his own ministers said, “Why don’t you let the people go, don’t you understand that all of Egypt is ruined?” Yet in spite of that, Pharaoh wouldn’t let them go. The last of the plagues, the tenth one, is connected with the exodus. It’s the death of the firstborn in Egypt. While the angel of death was coming through the land to slay all the firstborn of the Egyptians, the Jewish people were gathered in their houses, protected by the blood of the lamb that had been killed and the blood spread upon the lintels and doorposts of the houses while the angel of death passed over.
This was the night of nights for Israel. It was nothing less than the birth of a nation. In the early hours of the next morning, following the passage of the destroyer through the land, the men, women, and children, along with their flocks, herds, and all their other possessions marched out of Egypt, never to be enslaved there again.
Chapters 11-15 are the very heart of Exodus. And because the Passover is at the heart of Old Testament Christology, at least in the minds of many theologians, these chapters can be considered the very heart of the Old Testament. Anything of that importance demands very careful study. We will describe what happened, and then reflect on their theological significance.
We have already looked at the first nine plagues. Now, in the eleventh chapter, we are told about the nature of the tenth and final plague. God reveals this to Moses, and Moses repeats these words to Pharaoh. He is told that at midnight the destroyer is going to pass through the land and kill all the firstborn from the court of Pharaoh. From his very household his own firstborn son will die, and so will the firstborn son for the rest of the families of the entire nation. Not only that, but even the firstborn of the animals were going to die.
It was a terrible judgment; but it was a fitting one, in view of all the cruelty of the Egyptians toward the Israelites, which you will remember at one point involved the death of their children, as Pharaoh gave orders that all the males should be killed or thrown into the Nile. It was also fitting in view of all the oppression that he had brought upon them for that long period of time. You would think that Pharaoh would be so frightened by that kind of a judgment, having seen the other judgments unfold according to the word of Moses, that he would have repented. But he did not. At the very end of this chapter we find what we have found all along throughout the account: the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart. And remember, that also means that Pharaoh hardened his own heart. He would not let the Israelites go out of his country.
Scattered throughout chapter 12, the Lord gives instructions to Israel (vv. 1-13; 21-28; and 43-51). In between these are two shorter sections that deal with the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which is connected with Passover. And then comes the actual account of the death of Egypt’s children.
The first thing is that each Jewish family was to take a firstborn male lamb from the flock. It was to be one year old, and without blemish or spot. This was done on the tenth day of the month of Abib, which was later called Nisan. The lamb stayed with the family until the fourteenth day of this month.
Second, when this lamb was killed in the twilight of that evening, its blood was to be collected and then spread with a hyssop brush. (The hyssop was probably something like marjoram for us. It was a little plant that often grew out of the cracks in the walls, and made a good brush.) They were to take this brush, dip it in the blood, and spread it on both sides of the doorframe, as well as on the lintel at the top of the door. They were to mark their houses with blood as a sign to God as the destroyer passed through.
Third, this lamb was to be roasted whole and the people were to eat it in haste, dressed for departure. They were to have sandals on their feet, cloaks on their backs, and staffs in their hands. If any of the lamb was uneaten, it was to be burnt rather than left behind.
Fourth, the people were to remember this night and observe it throughout all their generations, so that later when their children ask what the ceremony meant, they could explain it without any hesitation or any doubt. They were to say, “It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians” (v. 27).
Lastly, we’re told that this was to be an observance for Israel alone. No foreigner was to participate in it, unless he had become a part of the covenant people by circumcision, which was a faith ordinance for those who were God’s people.
The Feast of Unleavened Bread is discussed in verses 14 through 20 of Exodus 12. Because of their hasty departure the people did not have time for the leaven to cause their bread to rise. So they took the bread with them in kneading troughs, wrapped up in cloth, and carried it upon their backs. This weeklong feast would begin on the Passover Sabbath (which would be the early hours of the fifteenth of Nisan), and would last for seven days until the twenty-first day of that month. Later, when they were settled in the land, they were to purge their houses of leaven. Leaven is a biblical symbol for sin, and removing it from their houses represented spiritual purity.